2019 review: How Theirworld is working to end global education crisis

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Theirworld Chair Sarah Brown and President Justin van Fleet visit refugee children on the Greek island of Kos (Theirworld)

Children in conflicts, Children with disabilities, Early childhood development, Education Cannot Wait, Education funding, Education in emergencies, Global Youth Ambassadors, International Women's Day, Justin van Fleet, Refugees and internally displaced people, The Global Business Coalition for Education (GBC-Education), Theirworld, United Nations General Assembly

We look back at a year of innovative campaigns, projects, research and youth activism that are all helping to unlock real and lasting change.

At Theirworld, we are committed to ending the global education crisis and unleashing the potential of the next generation. We believe that every child can have the best start in life, a safe place to learn and skills for the future.

Throughout 2019, we have been working hard to achieve that mission through the power of our campaigning, original research, youth activism and innovative projects.

“We’ve doubled down on our unique contribution – a commitment to unlocking big change,” said Theirworld President Justin van Fleet. 

“Our innovation projects deliver a real and immediate impact, and our eye is always on the bigger prize: what at the political and institutional levels we can shift through collective partnerships and campaigns to achieve the most systemic change for the largest number of young people. Achieving Sustainable Development Goal 4 requires us to have no smaller ambition.”

As we head towards a new year and new decade, we look at Theirworld’s work during 2019.


There are 260 million children out of school. Only 60% of children in poorer countries complete primary school. The education of 75 million children is disrupted by wars and disasters.

That’s why we have to ensure the voices and hopes of young people are heard. Theirworld’s #WriteTheWrong campaign focuses on unlocking big change – and 2019 saw several breakthrough moments.

Only 2% of all humanitarian aid was being spent on education when Theirworld began calling in 2015 for the international community to step up their efforts. In May the European Union announced that 10% of its aid spending in 2019 was going towards to education.

“The European Union is leading by example. We are making a concrete investment to peace by helping every child get access to school, anywhere and at all times,” said Christos Stylianides, the EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management.

#WriteTheWrong has been highlighting the need for a dramatic increase in all education funding, not just in crisis situations. At the UN General Assembly in September, Theirworld unveiled the Infinity Classroom exhibition  – a mirrored room filled with what appeared to be endless rows of empty school desks. It was used to urge donor countries to commit their support for global education.   

At the United Nations General Assembly, we saw this call to action take shape with contributions to two critical funding vehicles. They are Education Cannot Wait (ECW) – the global fund for children in conflict and emergency situations – and the International Finance Facility for Education (IFFEd), which will leverage billions in new financing for education in “missing middle” countries where the largest number of people living in poverty reside – but lack access to funding. 

Kenya Pre Primary Education 4


At a special event in New York, donors then pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to support ECW and IFFEd. A delighted Justin van Fleet said at the time: “This is the largest amount unlocked for education in a single day because IFFEd multiplies donor resources and unleashes new funding streams.”

When it comes to early childhood education – the building block for children to go on and succeed at school and beyond – there are 175 million kids who are missing out. In low-income countries, the picture is much bleaker – with only one in five young children enrolled in pre-primary classes.

At an April event hosted by Theirworld, UNICEF and the Global Business Coalition for Education in Washington, DC,  Theirworld and the UN children’s agency called on countries and international donors to increase and prioritise their spending on early childhood education and achieve a 10% target. 

UNICEF showed leadership at the UN General Assembly in September as the first institution committing to spend 10% of their education budgets on pre-primary schooling. Executive Director Henrietta Fore said: “Quality pre-primary education is the foundation of a child’s learning journey: every stage of education that follows relies on its success.” 

The agency and other major organisations also followed Theirworld’s lead by backing a call for governments and donors to support pre-primary education.


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Annemiek Hoogenboom from the People’s Postcode Lottery visits children on Kos (Theirworld)

Theirworld takes action to identify solutions to the urgent challenges preventing children and youth from receiving an education. We set up projects, aiming to scale them up through our partnerships and reach substantial numbers of people.

Our most recent is on the Greek Aegean Islands, where Theirworld announced it is extending its education support to include hundreds more vulnerable refugee children living in terrible conditions.

The latest project will see almost 500 children receive education at a centre near the notorious Moria camp on Lesvos. That’s on top of the broader Theirworld project with Education Cannot Wait that is already allowing partner organisations to send 5,500 girls and boys to school on the islands.

Theirworld’s work in the Greek islands is made possible thanks to the support of the Nationale Postcode Loterij. 

“Players of the Dutch and British Postcode Lotteries are proud partners of Theirworld’s bold expansion of education for refugee kids on Lesvos,” said Annemiek Hoogenboom, Country Director Great Britain of People’s Postcode Lottery, who visited the islands with Theirworld. 

“The Greek Islands are around the corner. We witnessed that going to school helps kids, from whatever of the right nationalities in the class, to overcome traumas and become friends.  At the same time it’s a tremendous relief for their mothers who live in camps in the most cramped circumstances.”

In Turkey, a programme supported by Theirworld has trained over 1,000 teachers and touched the lives of 5,000 students affected by conflict and displacement.

Trauma Informed Schools – run by the Istanbul-based organisation Maya Vakfı – helps teachers to understand the experiences and needs of traumatised Syrian refugee children. Maya Vakfı recommended the Turkish government, along with NGOs and agencies dealing with traumatised students in Turkey and in other countries, could adopt the model. 

Hundreds of girls are attending Code Clubs and Skills for Their Future programmes supported by Theirworld that ensure marginalised and disadvantaged girls and young women get an equal chance to fulfil their potential.

We launched the Code Clubs programme in 2016 and have supported over 1,300 girls through projects in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania and Lebanon. 

“I’d like to know more about the world and more about computers,” said Sharon, who attends a Code Club at Huruma Girls’ School in Nairobi. “I’d like to be an entrepreneur. I’d like to be my own programmer and do my work in my house.” 

In Lebanon, Theirworld is currently developing an education programme that can be applied across preparatory early childhood education classes to assess refugee and vulnerable children in the early years for special needs.

Edinburgh Birth Cohort Party

The project will provide a package of support services, including teacher training and therapy units, to ensure children have the best start and are prepared to enter primary school. 

In Kenya, Theirworld – supported by the Hilton Foundation – is running an innovative campaign in four counties. The aim is to ensure 10% of county education spending goes to early childhood development and education, that investment focuses on high-quality provision and that the needs of children with disabilities and those affected by HIV/AIDS are prioritised.

Researchers at the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory in Edinburgh are doing vital work to discover more about the causes of babies being born early and finding better ways to care for them. The aim is to minimise some of the life-threatening complications that can arise for mothers and babies.

The research includes The Theirworld Edinburgh Birth Cohort, whose goal is to improve understanding of how being born early affects the brain and learning in children. The study tests and measures the progress of premature babies over 25 years.

Parents of the children spoke to Theirworld at the cohort’s annual party in the summer. Mother Emma Torry said: “We want to be able to tell them when they get older that they’ve been part of the study. Having two girls, I want to help them feel that science is an opportunity for them.”


UNICEF chief Henrietta Fore and World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva were among those who called for change in the wake of Theirworld’s hard-hitting report Safe Schools: The Hidden Crisis.

It projected that 620 million girls and boys – nearly 40% of all school-age children worldwide – will live in countries where their education is at risk from environmental threats, war or violence by 2030.

Fore said in January: “The Theirworld report highlights a pathway for the global community to invest in, and deliver, the safe schools that children everywhere need to create a better future for themselves, their families and their communities.”

Another project is being conducted for Theirworld by Vibhu Sharma, our disability and inclusive education expert. The aim is to identify the most effective assistive technologies for children with visual, hearing and learning disabilities. 

Vibhu said: “We are conducting research on assistive technologies and are speaking to mainstream school children with disabilities and their teachers to find out the most effective assistive technologies.

Vibhu Sharma Disabilities Interview 5

“Based on our findings, we intend to develop recommendations to make the same assistive technology available to children with disabilities in developing countries.”

In April, in collaboration with the REAL Centre at the University of Cambridge, Theirworld highlighted the limited investment in the early years by major donors – only 26 cents per child per year in the poorest countries. 

The report Leaving The Youngest Behind also highlighted the impact on children in emergencies and in countries affected by HIV/AIDS. Professor Pauline Rose said the donor contribution “is so small that it would not even buy the frothy milk on a donor’s daily cappuccino. 

“The situation is even more stark for a pre-primary school-aged child residing in a conflict-affected country, who received on average just $0.17 in aid.”

Youth advocacy

Theirworld’s Global Youth Ambassadors continued to work tirelessly for change throughout 2019. The programme is a network of nearly 1,000 young people from over 90 countries across the globe working together to end the global education crisis. It is the go-to network for youth campaigners who want to be at the centre of the future of education. 

In January, Musa Olatunji was named by Theirworld as the Global Youth Ambassador of the Year. He said: “I have consistently campaigned with Theirworld, a great initiative that has transformed many children’s lives positively to help achieve their dreams and goals.”

The campaign to break down barriers and get every girl into school was the theme of an inspiring event hosted by Theirworld to mark International Women’s Day in March.

Three amazing young women – all Global Youth Ambassadors – shared their stories of overcoming the odds to fight for girls’ education worldwide. Shazia Ramzan and Kainat Riaz were campaigning in Pakistan with their school friend Malala Yousafzai when all three were shot and injured on their school bus in 2012. Yara Eid grew up in Gaza experiencing terrible attacks on her home and school.

The voices of our Global Youth Ambassadors were also heard during UN General Assembly week in September. Omotoke Olowo from Nigeria spoke at the event to raise funds for ECW and IFFEd. She and young people from other civil society organisations presented the signatures of nearly two million people demanding action to set up IFFEd.

Omotoke and fellow GYA Gideon Olanrewaju also featured at the Make Impossible Possible, #WriteTheWrong and Concordia events in New York.

Ahead of the UN General Assembly, GYA Yara Eid from Gaza appeared on TV in the Netherlands, where she said: “Education changed my life. The Global Youth Ambassadors are all fighting for children’s education.” She called for the Netherlands to give even more backing to global education funding. Days later at the UN, IFFEd received a guarantee of $250 million from the Netherlands.

Global Business Coalition for Education

The Global Business Coalition for Education (GBC-Education), established by Theirworld in 2012, is a movement of businesses committed to ending the education crisis. During UN General Assembly week in September, GBC-Education worked with the Education Commission to release the 2030 Skills Scorecard

It showed more than two-thirds of children in low-income countries – many of them in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East – will not be on track to have the skills they need to succeed in the workplace of 2030. In lower-middle-income countries this figure is 60% and for upper-middle-income countries it is around 40%.

“The dramatic pace of change in technology, automation and robotics means hundreds of millions of children and youth are in danger of being left behind,” said Jamira Burley, Head of Youth Engagement and Skills at GBC-Education. 

Last month, GBC-Education co-hosted the South Asia Youth Skills and Solutions Forum in Mumbai, India, with UNICEF’s Regional Office for South Asia and Generation Unlimited. It brought together governments, international agencies, the business sector and youth to focus on developing partnerships to overcome the youth skills crisis.

Theirworld Global Youth Ambassadors Madhu Chauhan and Vivek Gurav made sure the voice of young people was heard loud and clear. Madhu said: “The people who are closest to the problem are the ones who are closest to the solution. So we are the ones who need to take responsibility.” 

In September, GBC-Education revamped the digital platform for its REACT initiative. It stands for Rapid Education Action and is based on a simple idea – that businesses can supply tools, resources and knowledge that will help vulnerable children in crises access education.

The new website is now even better and more efficient at matching what businesses can offer to the needs of those helping children in crises. REACT helped 15,000 children get access to education this year and is looking forward to more progress in 2020.

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